Perfect security is a perfect trap. The further one advances one’s security, the more one provokes countervailing pressures that undermine one’s security. The quest for perfect security thus becomes a trap: if pursued too far, the quest only pushes the goal even further away.
The simplest way in which this occurs is when the act of enhancing security provokes a direct reaction. One example is an arms race, in which neither side intends aggression but both feel compelled to amass weapons that only provoke the opponent to respond in kind. Another example is the would-be hegemonist or empire-builder that innocently claims to be expanding only to ensure its own security. Many aggressors who appeared quite evil to their opponents have used this rationale, perhaps with a significant element of sincerity. Long land borders on open plains and long supply lines for scarce overseas resources do indeed make even the powerful feel insecure. Ironically, the more the empire-builder expands his domain, the more he will have to defend and the harder everyone else is likely to resist, a process that may well undermine both the empire-builder’s security and his perception thereof faster than he can strengthen it.
A more complicated form occurs when enhancements to one type of security undercut another type. A homeowner with half a dozen locks on the door in defense against burglars may burn to death before he can get them unlocked to escape a fire. A rich empire may seek such control over a scarce international resource that it provokes the rise of a military alliance of poor countries seeking to defend themselves or a social revolution by people who see their wealth benefiting others.
Security comes in many forms. It is all too easy to focus on one at the expense of another. At a minimum, security is composed of military, economic, and psychological arenas. The impact may occur at different time scales or be nonlinear, making it difficult to realize that improvements in one arena impose costs in another. Even if one understands concept of tradeoffs, they may be impossible to calculate. How valuable is trust? How much international trust does a benign world power lose when it claims the right to, for example, conduct preventive war to eliminate the possibility of a future threat? Might such an assertion sometimes undercut the power’s security by transforming neutrals into fearful opponents and sometimes enhance the power’s security by persuading opponents to give up resistance?
Bravado, the assertion of rights, a stockpile of weapons, and a quick little military victory are cash in the bank; the costs are less clear, less tangible, less certain, and slower to emerge. Indeed, they are quite likely to be invisible until the leader’s term in office has ended. To point out that these costs can be predicted on the basis of theory even though not actually yet detectable in the real world is a warning decision makers will find easy to ignore.
That perfect security is a perfect trap may seem obvious when laid out in the abstract, but this trap clenches its teeth daily on all manner of earnest, hard-working decision maker. Future comments on this theme will consider the concept of a national security commons and the implications for national security strategy of the rising complexity of the international political system.